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U.S.-China tensions front and center as former Australian PM speaks at SPIA

Rudd and True
Rudd and Truex in discussion.
Michelle Miao / Daily Princetonian

Kevin Rudd, incoming Ambassador of Australia to the United States, is concerned about the current relationship between the United States (U.S.) and China. Still, he believes there’s a way around total conflict. Addressing University community members at a panel hosted by the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) on March 3, Rudd discussed his new book “The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China.”

Just over a month after a Chinese spy balloon was first noticed in American airspace over Alaska, Rudd’s book comes at a time of reinvigorated discourse regarding global competition between the two countries. Rudd began his career as a scholar of China, and acted as the Australian diplomat in Beijing before entering national politics. He went on to serve as Australia's 26th Prime Minister. SPIA professor Rory Truex ’07, who specializes in Chinese politics and theories of authoritarian rule, moderated the discussion.


US-China relations have been gaining increased prominence in discussions of foreign policy on campus. Princeton hosts the Center on Contemporary China, founded in 2015, and the the Princeton Bendheim Center for Finance China Initiative.

Rudd opened on a foreboding note, stating, “For the first time in my life, I've become genuinely worried about the possibility of escalation to crisis, conflict, or war.”

The discussion then shifted to Rudd’s theorized reasons why “we are where we are” in regard to tensions between the two nations. Adopting a similar structure to his book, Rudd outlined three potential explanations: the shift in the balance of power in China’s favor; President Xi Jinping’s more assertive stance on the international stage; and finally, U.S. opposition to China’s new global position.

“The stability of U.S.-China relations is ultimately hinged on respective perceptions of a balance of power between China and the United States,” Rudd said. “Certainly from the…Chinese lens, that balance of power over the last 20 years has been moving more decisively in China's favor.” 

Rudd then explained that on all major global fronts — military, technology, and economy — China has become more powerful, able to “exercise its agency in [East Asia] and the world.” 

Rudd stated that China has looked to the future of a multipolarity world led by the East (东升西降 (dōng shēng xī jiàng) or “eastward and west”), departing from the unipolarity model that the U.S. has led since the end of World War II. In the context of international relations, multipolarity refers to a distribution of power in which more than two states have near equal power, while unipolarity refers to one state in a position of superior power, facing no competitor states.


Rudd’s second argument pointed to a shift in Chinese national messaging. In 2013, President Xi Jinping officially adopted the motto “striving for achievement” — a swift departure from China’s previous doctrine of “biding time,” established under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping. He cited China’s new active participation in the United Nations (UN), development of the Belt and Road Initiative, and creation of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank as examples of Xi’s new doctrine at work.

Rudd’s final argument focused on the U.S. response. He described the Obama administration as a turning point from a relationship of negotiation to competition. Rudd was critical of the Trump administration’s “inconsistent and erratic” response to this competition, pointing to the 2018–20 Trade War, and the former president’s rhetoric surrounding China and COVID-19.

Citing recent American response to the Chinese spy balloon, Rudd noted the “peeling away of the political and diplomatic capital [that] has been accumulated over decades in the U.S.-China relationship.” He said that the failure of Chinese officials to respond to the U.S. Secretary of Defense through diplomatic channels contributed to the U.S. decision to shoot down the balloon. In this case, Rudd said, “the guardrails put in place failed.”  

Rudd’s proposal to prevent a full-blown conflict between the U.S. and China is the principle of “managed strategic competition,” in which de-escalation mechanisms are put in place to avoid crises and two countries engage in non-lethal competition. “In all these domains from technology to ideology, may the best side win,” said Rudd. “Let’s just see who provides the ultimate contest of goods, services, and ideas.” 

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Rudd also stated that despite this competition, the U.S. and China could work together on certain global goals, such as climate change and nuclear non-proliferation. “Whatever the differences are between China and the United States, neither side in my argument has any interest in North Korea, Iran, or other American allies becoming fully-fledged nuclear states,” he said. “Once that happens, the genie is fully out of the global bottle.” 

At the end of the panel, Truex opened the discussion to audience questions, which led to a lively discussion between Rudd and sociology professor Yu Xie.

Xie critiqued Rudd’s interpretation of U.S. and China relations. To Xie, the shift in the balance of world power between China and the U.S. was well-predicted 20 years ago. Additionally, he maintained that China’s fundamental goals of authoritarian rule have not changed within the past seven decades. 

“They have always insisted from the 50’s that they’re going to be number one in the world. There’s no change in the core principles of the party. What has changed, I think, is the understanding of China from the U.S. side,” Xie said. 

“I disagree with you,” Rudd responded. He argued that the shift in balance may have been predicted by the military elite, but “a general acceptance of that reality on the part of political elites in the United States is something else. That’s what changed.” 

He also rebutted Xie’s claim that China’s goals have not changed within the past several decades. “Xi Jinping is a fundamental change agent,” he said.

Rudd describes the growth of China’s economic and military powers as exponential over the last decade — differing greatly from China’s previous incremental growth through the late-20th century.

The panel ended immediately after this exchange to allow for a previously scheduled book signing. 

The panel was held at 4:30 p.m. in the Lewis Auditorium and was sponsored by the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. 

Jasmyn Dobson is a staff writer for the ‘Prince.’

Michelle Miao is a news and newsletter contributor for the ‘Prince.’

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